Like loads of people that I know, I gamely started a NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) project at the start of November but then had to pull out after just a day when my RSI reached a critical point and my GP ordered me to desist immediately.
I will also admit that I was put off by snide comments on Twitter and elsewhere, both from a few established writers getting really up themselves about the whole thing (‘Oh dear, just look at all the silly unpublished writers trying to be like us and churning out loads of rubbish’) and people who have clearly never written anything more taxing than a mean spirited Tweet being really drearily crap about it (‘If any of you had any talent you wouldn’t feel the need to do this. Real writers write every day, not just for a month you losers!!111!11 Lol.’) I shouldn’t have been put off by this but I’ll put my hand up and admit that I was. Sorry.
Anyway, to make up for that, here is the first chapter of my project, which is a fictionalised account of the life of Mary Jane Kelly, the final victim of Jack the Ripper. I’m carrying on with it until the bitter end (even though I have no real idea what that end will involve) and it needs a lot of work, obviously, but it’s a start anyway.
My name is Mary. Or maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s Emma, Marie Jeanette or Cornelia. I’ve told so many lies now, spun so many different highly coloured and fanciful versions of my life and deceived so many people, most of whom didn’t deserve it that sometimes I don’t even think I know myself any more. I’m not a total fool, I don’t lie awake in my cramped bed at night and wonder who I am and why I am here, I leave that sort of nonsense to the poets and philosophers amongst my clientele, but sometimes, just sometimes I find myself looking in the little tarnished mirror that I have carried in my pocket since I was a girl and frowning a little as I try to recognize myself.
‘Who are you today?’ I whisper, my cherry scented breath steaming up the glass, as I peer closely, taking in every detail of my face, missing nothing and at the same time not really seeing anything at all. Yesterday I was a painted courtesan, dancing sensuously in front of a bedazzled business man as he sat corpulent and with legs spread far apart, this morning I was foul mouthed and aggressive with the other women at the water pump while this afternoon I wept bitter but becoming tears of pure boredom as a besotted poet read me his latest work while I lay naked and shameless upon his threadbare russet velvet sofa. Tomorrow I’ll be someone else, maybe demure and artless for a slumming Lord or perhaps as brazen and magnificent as a fallen angel for one of my actors.
So where did it all begin? It all depends on my mood and who I am talking to and how much money they have jingling in their pockets so if you believe one version I was born miserable and ragged into grinding, dismal poverty in Ireland and if you believe another my parents were prosperous but straight laced religious people from Cardiff and oh, I was such a disappointment to them with my flighty ways and red slut’s mouth and if you believe yet another I was born in Bristol to colourful, exciting music hall folk who travelled up and down the country with their show. In that version I made an unexpectedly early appearance backstage as my mother was getting changed into a pink silk dress for her final number. Frankly though, if you believe that one, then you will believe anything.
Right now though, I’ve had a good day despite the poet and you look like a kind soul, so I think that today I was born barefoot but happy in a village in Wicklow, Ireland to ordinary, honest people who loved me. Tomorrow the infant me might not be so fortunate or, who knows, maybe she will be born on silken lace edged sheets into the aristocracy then snatched away from her rich and adoring parents in the middle of the night by sloe eyed gypsies who will raise her up as their own? I’ve told that one before to a couple of gentlemen and it seemed to go down quite well. They like to pretend that I have a bit of class, you see and they like a bit of mystery too plus the possibility that they might be fumbling with their own long lost sister always seems to get them going a bit.
The truth is that I didn’t live in Ireland for long, as by the time I was able to run and charmingly lisp a few words, our whole family had got onto a boat and sailed across the sea to Wales, first to a village near Caernarfon and then to the grey sprawling town of Flint, where my father worked as a foreman in the local colliery. I was just a baby when we left so don’t remember much about Ireland, but the dark clouds and brooding mountains of Wales never felt much like home to me and I remember being terrified as a child of the long columns of miners returning home at dusk, their faces covered in black dust, their eyes and teeth gleaming white as they grinned like devils at we children hiding behind our mothers’ long skirts.
I was born in November, a time of bonfires, long nights and magic. My mother was always telling me that – she had a fey, distant look about her that kept the superstitious village children away and made their mothers gather together in doorways and stare at her angrily with their arms crossed defensively across their ample aproned bosoms as she strode alone down Castle Street, her long corn coloured hair hanging loose down her narrow back and her lips moving silently as she smiled up into the sunshine.
‘What are you saying, mama?’ I asked once as I skipped alongside her through the meadow around the castle prison, swishing a stick through the long green grass and laughing as the insects flew upwards and settled on my blue cotton skirt. ‘Are you praying?’
She laughed but caught defensively at the heavy, slightly tarnished gold cross that swung at her throat. ‘No, child, I am not praying.’ She turned her wide grey eyes upon me and smiled. ‘It’s just some poetry that I have loved ever since I was a little girl like you.’
I whacked the grass again with my stick. ‘Will you tell me it, mama?’
She looked away, a crimson flush rising from her neck and spreading to her ears, where tiny gold hoops glittered in the sunshine. ‘Maybe some other time, child.’
I understood of course. Mama was mysterious and seemed to hear and see things that weren’t really there, a bit like a dog that sits next to the door with its paw lifted, waiting for a call that may never come. Papa was very different though. He was a kind man at heart, but a prosaic one, a big tall Irishman with bright red whiskers who sighed and rolled his eyes when mama talked about the books she liked to read or the paintings that she saw when she was a little girl and her own mama took her to the big gallery in Dublin. He humoured her as much as he could, letting her stick her little tinted art postcards all over the house and pretending to listen for a few minutes when she read aloud to him from her old, broken spined books but you could tell that he really didn’t understand at all.
I once listened to them arguing at night when they thought we were all asleep. I lay very still, hardly daring to breathe in the big cosy bed in the corner of the kitchen that I shared with my older sister Eliza and listened as my parents hissed at each other across the table as they cleared away the dinner things. My father said terrible things about how he shouldn’t have married her, how his mother had warned him against it and how he hadn’t wanted to really but then she had fallen pregnant with Eliza and trapped him, while my mother sobbed and nervously clattered the already chipped and cracked blue and white china plates that she was stacking up.
‘It wasn’t like that,’ she weakly protested. ‘Don’t you remember?’
My father heaved a great sigh, a sound that all of we children knew meant that he was exasperated beyond all endurance and a whisker away from losing his temper. ‘I remember thinking you were a mighty pretty piece, Ellen. I just didn’t bargain for your odd ways.’ He lowered his voice. ‘I worry that you’ll pass them on to our girls and then what will happen to them? Our younger girl is already starting to get airs and graces and is talking about becoming an actress.’
‘If that is what she wants to do…’ my mother began and I heard the whisper of her red cotton skirts as she carried the rest of the bread to the little pantry beside the kitchen.
My father thumped his hand down on the table and for a moment I forgot that I was supposed to be asleep and snapped my eyes open, catching a quick glimpse of his profile as he leaned over the table, his face red and angry in the candlelight before I closed them again. ‘No daughter of mine is becoming an actress,’ he hissed. ‘I won’t have our name shamed in such a way.’ He went after my mother, who was still in the pantry. ‘I won’t have it, Ellen.’
‘We can’t stop her, John,’ I heard her say. ‘She’s determined and will have her own way.’ I imagined her gently placing her hand on his arm and forcing him to look at her. ‘You know how our girl can be when she sets her mind on something.’ She gave a little laugh and I sensed my father’s reluctant answering grin. ‘She’s just like you, John.’
They came back into the kitchen and I heard the squeak of a chair against the tiled floor as my father sat down and then the happy sighs as he pulled off first one boot and then the other and threw them so that they fell in a heap of leather and laces beside the door. ‘I know, Ellen,’ he said with his low laugh that I loved so much and I heard the swish of my mother’s skirts as he pulled her close to him and lifted up his face for a kiss which she soundly gave him. ‘My mother may have been set against you, but I was determined that we would be wed and so we were.’
‘And so we were,’ she agreed, kissing him again. After a while they went upstairs to their little room beneath the eaves and the familiar strange squeaking thumping sound would start, which I tried to drown out by pulling the pillow out from underneath my sister’s head and putting it over my own. I didn’t know quite what it signified but I already knew that it was something that I wasn’t meant to hear.
After they had presumably gone to sleep and silence had fallen over the little house, I mulled over what had been said. I had known of course that my father would be opposed to my chosen path in life but my mother’s accepting attitude came as something of a surprise to me. I was so used to her gentle, other worldly gaze and her silences that this opposition, this going against my father was shocking and also extremely heartening.
I lay awake for a long time that night, stretching out my toes beneath the thin cotton sheets and scratchy woolen blanket and trying to ignore the soft snores of my sisters as I dreamed of the glorious adventure that lay before me, the thrill of performing in front of adoring, applauding audiences, of the glamorous costume changes, of seeing my name written on the crudely printed play bills that would be pasted all over the walls of the town.
I saw myself standing on a stained wooden stage, dressed in a rich pink, yellow and gold silk robe, thick black kohl around my eyes and red rouge on my lips with my auburn hair hanging loose about my shoulders and a silver paper crown, studded all around with glass jewels upon my head. Close up I looked tawdry, cheap, a fraud but from a distance, I was magnificent as evidenced by the cheers and whistles of the crowd as they threw red, white and orange flowers at my feet.
I had seen exactly this only a few years beforehand when my mother had taken my sisters and I to see a play in Cardiff and afterwards the leading lady had stepped forward into the light cast by the smoking tallow candles at the front of the stage and had bowed graciously from the waist as with open arms she accepted the wild applause of the audience. My sisters had been silent and unimpressed by the whole experience but I had gazed up, entranced, at her, clapping until my palms smarted and ached and wishing with all of my heart that I was the one standing there before them all, showing off my talents and being praised.
I fell asleep just before dawn, curled up on my stomach, my arms wrapped around myself, pulling my secret dreams close to my heart.